Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Garden of Verse: 'You Must Change Your Life'

"You Must Change Your Life: The story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin" by Rachel Corbett, 2016
            To follow the path of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, you must begin in Prague, a worn and provincial place in the last decades of the 19th century, seek him in German fields and cities, in Russia, and of course, principally, in Paris. A modernized Paris, the city that seems to sing of classical beauty as if built by Olympians with time on their hands, but was in fact the vision of Baron Haussman, who urban-renewed it in the mid-19th century for the tyrant Louis Napoleon, an emperor desirous of wide boulevards to banish the return of the barricades.
            Alone in the overpopulated city of struggling masses who  crowded the avenues like a plague of "beatles" and terrified one another with reflections of the grotesqueries they sensed in their own harried existences, the German-speaking poet escapes his room to stalk the streets, but is assaulted beyond the resources of free will by the lurching progress of the a sufferer of St. Vitus's Dance. Hours later he finds himself on a park bench, lost to the world.
            Somewhere Rilke learns of the concept of einfulung, or "feeling into," which led to the embrace (in English) of "empathy," the state of "losing oneself" in, for instance, works of art.... Perhaps from Lou Andreas-Salome, the Russian radical feminist author and cosmopolitan intellectual -- cultural critic, as we might say today -- who rejected two proposals of marriage from Nietzsche, yet also lived with him and the German philosopher Paul Rhee at the same time; and who later married Carl Andreas, another philosopher, on the condition there be no sex, no children in their alliance, though she never parted from him. She wrote a book called "Jesus the Jew," was a mesmerizing storyteller and, while 14 years older than Rilke, encouraged him in a Bohemian lifestyle (eat vegetarian, wear peasant attire), and changed his name from Renee (the female name imposed on him by a mother who wanted a girl) to Rainer, supposedly more Slavic. The still young poet fell into a "reckless passion" for her. Boris Pasternak, after seeing them together, reported seeing the poet with "his mother or older sister" when Rilke and 'Lou' went to Russia, dropping in on her husband, and laying siege to Tolstoi, increasingly deaf, Christian, and rudely  irritable (a state in which he was exceeded only by his wife; and yet from Tolstoi Rilke came away with the idea of a "book of hours," patterned after the medieval prayer book, for his next book of poems.
            Broke, and deserted by Lou, Rilke was commissioned to write a monograph on the famous and then controversial sculptor Rodin. He moved to Paris and sought an introduction through his wife -- having found time to marry the sculptor Clara Westoff and produce a daughter -- to Rodin, suffering while awaiting an invitate from the master, from the sensation overload of the teeming metropolis, the like of which the world had never seen. Here is a sample of what "You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin" author Rachel Corbett tells us about the struggle to survive in turn-of-the-century Paris." The motors, the speeds," the shapeless unity of the crowds, "crowds of people like beetles," rag pickers,"windows watch him like eyes."
           The invitation, however, eventually came from Rodin, the mentor from whom Rilke sought to learn the secret of how to be true artist. The young Rilke was always seeking a master; from Andreas-Salome, from Tolstoi. In Rodin he finds "compulsive devotion to his craft"; an artist for whom "the whole sky was now but a stone." Rodin, who continually sculpted the human form, "loved hands" more than any other part of the body, and his own were always busy molding clay. From Rodin he learned the life of the artist consisted in "toujours travailler": always working. 
            Corbett's title "You Must Your Change Your Life" appears to refer to Rodin's life-changing advice to the poet Rilke, who believed that some deeper well of inspiration or artistic wisdom had yet open in his own pursuit of his vocation. Similarly, around the same time, Rilke receives a letter seeking advice from Franz Xavier Kappus, a cadet in the military school Rilke had himself once miserably attended. Rilke wrote back, beginning the correspondence that was later published as "Letters to a Young Poet." The advice he passed on to the would-be poet Kappus is presumably the advice he himself had been receiving from Rodin. Again: "Change your Life."
            But in neither case do these words actually appear as a direct statement by either mentor-figure, Rodin or Rilke.
            Nor do we find a clear exposition of what Rodin's famous words of advice, "toujours travailler" -- always working -- actually mean.
            The closest Corbet comes to telling us what these words means to Rilke is "to work is to live without dying." OK, but what does that mean?         
            She also offers this paraphrase of Rilke's thinking on his own art of poetry: "poems are not feelings, they are experiences."   As somebody who writes poems, I like this idea. But, again, when it comes to advice -- either given, or received -- what does it mean?
            In another source, a review on Rilke's still popular "Letters to a Young Poet," the novelist John Banville offers this explanation of the practical effect of Rodin's slogan:  
            "For the sculptor, work was everything: Il faut travailler—toujours travailler was his motto. As for inspiration, Rilke wrote, the mere possibility of it he 'shakes off indulgently and with an ironic smile, suggesting that there is no such thing….' These assertions must have struck Rilke like thunderbolts. Suddenly it was not the emotion or the idea that mattered, but the thing. Rodin was, above all, a maker of things."
            From the first part of this explantion I draw the conclusion: Don't wait for 'inspiration.' Keep working at you do.
            But Rodin's motto developed organically from the nature of his art. He walked around with clay in his hands: modeling, always modeling. He found his 'vision' of the work ('at hand') through his hands. Rilke, by analogy, must keep putting his pen in the inkwell. But there's more to it.  
            The second part of Banville's explication emphasizes the kind of art Rodin was always working on. As a sculptor he was "a maker of things." From this example Rilke learns to look at things more deeply than he has. He 'gets inside' of them. Rodin sent him to the zoo. Rilke gazed at the panther, and other beasts, by the hour until he came to experience the world as the panther did, to see it through his eyes. The next book of poems he produced consisted of what Rilke called his "thing poems."
            What is also lacking in Corbet's book, intriguing as this book is -- and exactly on a subject that has long interested me -- is any connection between Rodin's advice, the change that it brought about in the poet's s understanding of his own vocation, and Rilke's undisputed masterpiece, written later in life, the "Duino Elegies."
            Rodin, an older man, is understandably out of the picture by this point. After another prolonged crisis of creation, Rilke spends time alone in the Duino castle overlooking the Adriatic Sea. High up on the cliffs he hears a voice in the wind, and then begins to write these famous poems.  
            Banville's essay remedies this omission . Writing of the poet's connection to 'the things of this world,' he tells us that "in the ninth and perhaps greatest of the Duino Elegies [Rilke] asks why we should persist in our humanness, and offers this beautiful answer [in translation]:
"…because truly being here is so much; because everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all."

"You Must Change Your Life: The story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin" by Rachel Corbett, 2016